June, 2015

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Supermarkets Increase Health & Wellness Investment

By Cathy Polley, RPH, Vice President Of Health And Wellness, FMI/Executive Director, FMI Foundation

More than ever before, food retailers are investing in health and wellness promotions in stores. In 2014, more than half of food retailers (54 percent) established health and wellness programs for both customers and employees. At the same time, a majority of food retailers (61 percent) reported that their companies’ overall health and wellness programs and activities increased moderately or significantly between 2013 and 2014.

Increased programming by food retailers highlights a shift in focus from merely talking about health and wellness to creating opportunities for customers and employees to participate in their own health and wellness activities. For example: Price Chopper’s “Know Your Produce” advisory program online allows customers to search different produce and learn about an item’s nutritional value, peak season, cooking tips, etc.; Carlisle, PA-based Giant Food Stores’ “Passport to Nutrition” program provides an interactive toolkit to teach kids about healthy ideas. It’s a full school curriculum for ages 8 through 12 years old.

The Food Marketing Institute recently launched a first-of-its-kind collaboration among the FMI Foundation, grocers and their valued customers to share, inspire and help each other prepare more family meals at home. This September, we kick-start National Family Meals Month, a movement to promote the benefits of family meals and help bring mealtime home to the family table. (Learn more about this exciting initiative by visiting fmifamilymeals.com.)

With an impressive 96 percent of food retailers committed to expanding in-store health and wellness initiatives in the coming years, it is clear that today’s food retailers (70 percent) identify this area as one with significant business growth opportunity.


Measuring Success

As investment in health and wellness activities increases, so does the need for companies to set quantitative business goals to track and measure program effectiveness and determine the path forward. In 2014, more than 63 percent of retailers established health and wellness business goals and implemented mechanisms necessary to track results and to measure success. The most commonly utilized tracking mechanism today — employed by nearly 90 percent of companies — is quantitative customer participation. Qualitative respondent feedback comes in second at 80 percent, and at just below 50 percent, sales figures ranks third. Despite a 30 to 40 percent drop, the effectiveness of sales figures to track results rivals the reported effectiveness of both customer participation and feedback.


Rx For Implementation

The trend is to empower pharmacy leadership teams (59 percent) and nutrition leadership teams (50 percent) to guide companywide health and wellness strategy. In instances where health and wellness strategy decisions remain with a company’s president and chief executive officer (36 percent), the pharmacy and nutrition teams are often still charged with implementation. Sixty-seven percent of retailers report that their pharmacists and dietitians work together to plan and develop health and wellness programs. For many, this professional collaboration extends to how they service health-seeking customers. Forty-eight percent report collaboration on customer-specific recommendations, and 52 percent report customer referrals between pharmacy and nutrition services.

Whereas the pharmacist is a well-established, trusted health care provider at most supermarkets chains, the supermarket dietitian is a relatively new phenomenon. However, with 95 percent of retailers now employing dietitians at some level — data suggest the phenomenon is here to stay, and for good reason.

Retailers are not only interested in servicing sick customers; 74 percent report organizing health and wellness offerings to balance engagement with both well and sick customers. To add value for health-minded customers, supermarkets are turning to dietitian-provided services like store tours to help shoppers navigate the grocery aisles.

Retailers are also employing chefs in greater numbers — 76 percent employ a chef at all or some stores. A near equivalent 74 percent now offer cooking classes. In sync with these trends toward culinary and healthy eating, 84 percent of retailers report actively promoting communal eating, such as family meals. While relatively few of these programs have been formalized, the family meal concept and research supporting the health benefits have clearly been embraced by retailers across the country.


A New Vision Of The Grocery Store

It is undeniable that supermarket retailers have good reason to focus on health and wellness programs. Health care is one of the fastest growing areas of the economy, and there is a sense that traditional methods of delivering health care, mostly through doctors, is simply too expensive. So the future seems to be an odd dumbbell, with lots of primary care providers — such as physicians assistants and nurses delivering primary care often at an in-store clinic — and then very high-end specialists to help when one is discovered to have a serious illness such as cancer.

It is also clear why supermarkets would want to emphasize various healthy eating objectives. The basic retail model is for supermarkets to sell what customers want to buy, which isn’t typically healthy. So by emphasizing dieticians and healthy eating programs, supermarkets position themselves on the side of the angels. Retailers can be presented to the public, the media, non-governmental organizations, and the government as doing its bit to fight obesity and make the populace healthier.

Fighting for programs that encourage family dinners at home make retailers look engaged and concerned, and it allows stores to promote something most clearly in their interest — eating at home.

Yet the exact role supermarkets play in boosting health is uncertain. Having a dietician on staff is nice from an image point of view and, perhaps, a dietician can sway consumers on the margins through a column, video or interview with a journalist. But dieticians aren’t given authority to veto assortment choices. Even if they were, people are very diverse. Obesity may be the big, publicly discussed problem. But there are people who are underweight, young children with different nutritional needs, people undergoing chemo-therapy, people who exercise many hours, etc. The issue is what people choose, not what is available.

Somewhere in all this, though, one senses a new definition of the grocery store beginning to emerge. The dietician, the chef, the pharmacist, the in-store clinic, the cooking school, etc., somehow retailers are sensing that the days when they could point to consumer choice as justification for selling anything are winding down.

When one looks to purchase stocks, one has to fill out an information sheet that, among other things, forces an individual to declare his or her investment goals. Is it preservation of capital or a wild race to maximize returns? Is all you have in this one account? Or do have many reserves elsewhere?

Perhaps we could imagine a world devel­oping where consumers would make similar declarations with their eating and health goals, and grocers would collaborate with consumers to help them achieve their goals or the goals set for the family.

How this might evolve is unclear. Will it be mandatory? We require people to get prescriptions for many medicines, yet the food one eats, the type, the quality, and the quantity can impact one’s health just as dramatically.

Will it be an upscale indulgence? Like having a personal trainer, whereby the rich will get advised and they and their families will become healthier than those who cannot afford the counseling?

Or maybe technology will bring what is now costly advice down to a price almost everyone can afford.

Imagine your Apple Watch cautioning you that you are buying whole milk, and your goal is weight reduction, so you would better off with skim. Or maybe you are picking up a prepared food, and your Artificial Intelligence system reminds you that you are on a low-sodium diet, so it downloads a simple recipe telling you how to make the dish yourself with less sodium.

Maybe the grocery store of tomorrow won’t actually stock much food. Maybe it will only have a little convenience store-like section. The space might be given over to counselors and medical personnel of different types, and — in the context of working with them — one orders everything, but the items are delivered directly to the home. The real estate in grocery stores is better used for interactive engagement.

It all seems a little science fiction right now, but the trends are there. Though the past is always prologue to the future, the future can’t always be grasped from the present. pb